50 years ago, the sound of Philly Soul was born out of the legendary Philadelphia International Records. With the talents of The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees, McFadden & Whitehead, and others, the label rewrote the standards of soul music. To celebrate all P.I.R. contributed to the world of music, we’re publishing a number of soul features this month, and giving away The Story of Philadelphia International Records prize pack, which includes vinyl, a turntable, and speakers.
How do you pick 20 songs that define an era — that represent a sound that means so much to so many people? It’s not easy, but the first thing that comes to mind is “emotion.”
The Philadelphia Sound, made famous by Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble, and Leon Huff, endures decades after its inception. Songs by The O’Jays, The Stylistics, Patti LaBelle, and Teddy Pendergrass — to name just a few — will never go out of style.
That’s a testament to the work of everyone involved, as they created everlasting soundscapes and wrote about universal topics that will always be a part of the human condition.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get into the list, shall we? Here are the 20 best Philly Sound songs of all time.
20. The Delfonics – “La-La (Means I Love You)”
It wasn’t easy putting this at number 20. Even in this position, it doesn’t mean this is a bad song; every song here is a high standard for the genre. “La-La (Means I Love You)” by The Delfonics is a perfect love song. It was perfect in 1968, it’s perfect in 2021, and it will remain perfect in 2038. Every band from The Jacksons to Prince have their own version of it, and it is The Delfonics’ legacy. From the second those drums hit, the song announces itself as something special and worthy of your time.
19. The Stylistics – “People Make the World Go Round”
“People Make the World Go Round” is haunting. Sonically, it might be the most divergent song on this list. Another example of musicians being inspired by their surroundings, the song details the effect the ’70s transit strikes had on residents of big cities, but exudes an understanding that we’re all connected. “People Make the World Go Round” is a brief reminder that what happens to one of us happens to all of us.
18. The Spinners – “The Rubberband Man”
Thom Bell and Linda Creed wrote “The Rubberband Man” song for Bell’s son, whose classmates were teasing him for being overweight. The funky rhythms and its cheerful nature continue to captivate audiences to this day. The song shows up in commercials, movies, and most recently, Avengers: Infinity War. With all that said, this is probably the best gift any parent could give their child.
17. The Spinners – “O-o-h Child”
We all have days when we feel like the world is crumbling around us. “O-o-h Child” is the anthem for those days. Originally recorded by Chicago’s the Five Stairsteps in 1970, it was covered by The Spinners that same year. Its most recent appearance in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy further etched its significance in pop culture, as a brand new generation was introduced to it in a different emotional context.
16. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes – “The Love I Lost”
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes didn’t mess around. “The Love I Lost” grabs your attention from the start. Once the singing comes in, it’s a foregone conclusion that the song will worm its way into your head and never leave. It’s also another case of very sad subject matter existing over an energetic and joyful beat. One wonders if this was all part of the plan for Philadelphia artists, as they managed to talk about deep subject matter that got people on the dance floors.
15. McFadden & Whitehead – “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”
When this song starts, it’s hard not to think of disco. And by that, I mean hard not to think of images of disco our parents showed us. “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” just sounds like afros, bell bottoms, and good times. McFadden & Whitehead’s triumphant anthem is perfect for any celebratory occasion, but often shows up at family reunions and cookouts.
14. Patti LaBelle – “If Only You Knew”
“If Only You Knew” is Patti LaBelle’s tender side. And — yet again — it’s a song that’s never truly left us. Unlike other songs on this list, where someone is open about their emotions and feelings, LaBelle plays the role of a shy woman not ready to fully go there. It’s a change of pace for someone a lot of us think of now as a woman who always says what’s on her mind, but it’s necessary, too. LaBelle, like every artist on this list, speaks to the range of emotions we feel as humans. And there are days when even the most self-assured ones among us choke on our words.
13. MFSB – “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto”
Philadelphia artists were politically and socially astute as well. “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” is a call to arms. MFSB was Philadelphia International Records’ house band of very talented musicians. Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, Dee Dee Shaw and Archie Bell were like the Wu Tang Clan of their day. They came together and made hit record after hit record, but this one is special.
The group proved they were never too far from what was going on in Philly, New York City, or every big city in America at the time. Their people were dying and living in substandard conditions, and they wanted to do something about it. Just goes to show “entertainers” and politics were always intertwined.
12. The Stylistics – “Betcha By Golly Wow”
Though it was originally written for Connie Stevens, “Betcha by Golly, Wow” was made for The Stylistics. Russell Thomkins Jr.’s falsetto is perfect for anything Thom Bell produced. It’s another song declaring one’s love through lyrics not only befitting a song, but a poem. Only a poet would talk about catching a falling star, reordering rainbows in their lover’s favorite shade, and writing a name across the sky. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and gets its point across with ease.
11. Teddy Pedergrass – “Close the Door”
To borrow a joke, Teddy Pedergrass’ songs told you to do something. “Close the Door” is no different, as it finds the legend serenading his lover but wanting to keep it behind closed doors. As a solo artist, Pedergrass brings the same energy that he did as a Blue Note, combining tenderness with authority. Like every song on this list, it’s lived on through other R&B artists over the years, and through hip-hop producers sampling it. Why do they love Teddy Pendergrass? Because their parents loved him. “Close the Door” makes it easy to see why.
10. The O’Jays – “For the Love of Money”
There’s no way this song wasn’t making this list. There’s not much to say about it. Even if you don’t know the name of the song, you’ll recognize it from its opening notes. “For the Love of Money” is endlessly covered, featured in movies, sampled by rappers, and the first thing anyone thinks about when they get paid.
09. Lou Rawls – “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”
Lou Rawls was a different type of cat. He didn’t look like the typical R&B star at the time, and he didn’t carry himself like one, either. But this song shows the man knew his worth. “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” is the perfect post-breakup song. It’s triumphant rather than sorrowful, and self-affirming. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do when our hearts break?Like the best Philly songs, it’s big in scale and uses every instrument perfectly to match the persona of the artist.
08. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes are as synonymous with Philadelphia as Pat’s and Geno’s. They epitomized the city’s rawness and its devotion to soul. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” might be their crowning achievement, with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff creating a song about lovers feeling like strangers. Teddy Pendergrass’ lead vocals are, as usual, powerful. No matter what you’re doing, no matter what time of day it is, Teddy’s voice and style always commands your attention.
07. The Spinners – “I’ll Be Around”
“I’ll Be Around” kept its word. The song, which features the hallmarks of Thom Bell’s production, remains a constant almost 50 years after its release. The string and brass sections are the most prominent, and the track doesn’t rely on the drums like most producers did at the time. The song peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, was covered by dozens of artists, and is a Rorschach test for listeners. The song can be a promise to a friend, a family member, or a lover.
06. The O’Jays – “Love Train”
Love is good to be happy about. The O’Jays trafficked in jams that activated euphoria in its listeners. “Love Train” is about boarding a metaphorical train of love and taking it around the world. It’s also perfect for any wedding. What happy couple doesn’t want to announce to the entire world how happy they are and that their love is betters than yours? The song hits the usual notes one expects from Philadelphia at this point, but it’s not as dramatic or dense. “Love Train” finds a medium for their sound, not being too orchestral, but not lacking any ambition in its arrangement.
05. Billy Paul – “Me and Mrs. Jones”
Who doesn’t know me and Mrs. Jones got a thing going on? This is one of those songs that defined weekend mornings for a lot of families, even though the subject matter isn’t what anyone would call “family friendly.” Billy Paul sang his heart out about a lover he wanted to keep on the down low because one, or both of them, was cheating on a spouse. Infidelity! Creepin’! And yet so many grandmothers and grandfathers around the country can sing every word while on their way to Sunday morning service. Scandalous.
04. Patti Labelle – “Love Need and Want You”
Labelle’s gift is conjuring emotion through her voice. Seriously, the woman can elicit tears by pitching her voice just the right way over the perfect beat. And she sings every verse with the conviction of a woman who’s lived a thousand lifetimes. “Love, Need, and Want You” is a love letter to someone very special. The beauty of the song is that it works as a declaration for someone in your life or someone who just walked out of it. Labelle hits high notes sparingly; only when the song and production call for it.
03. Teddy Pendergrass – “Love T.K.O.”
There’s a theme with records out of Philly during this time: Love is the greatest thing in the world, until it isn’t. “Love T.K.O.” is the great Teddy Pendergrass bearing his soul over the funkiest bass line known to man about being unlucky in love. Pendergrass’s vulnerability is the star here, as he remembers his bumps and bruises while declaring his heart can’t take the pain of heartbreak anymore. “Love T.K.O.” poetically wraps heartbreak around a beat that you can both slow dance to, or just throw on and snap your fingers if the vibe hits you.
02. The Stylistics – “Hurry Up This Way Again”
The Stylistics are on this list a lot, and it’s because their voices blended perfectly with the production. “Hurry Up This Way Again” is six minutes of everything that made this group great. It revived them in 1980 after they sounded dated during the late ‘70s. It’s a beautiful song about unrequited love and heartbreak, with Russel Thompkins Jr. hitting notes that only he could. Imitate him at your own peril.
01. The O’Jays – “Back Stabbers”
What is there to say about this record that someone else didn’t say many moons ago? The O’Jays classic, which turns 50 next year, still hits as hard today as it did in 1972. The subject matter — paranoia, betrayal, love, and love lost — will remain relevant from one generation to the next. The production is the epitome of what made the Philly sound stand out during an era of copycats. The opening notes sound more fitting for a movie score than an R&B group, evoking the right amount of danger and action that hooks the listener. All these years later, the song refuses to let go.